SPINE Festival – a free, annual spoken word and cross artform festival taking place in libraries for children, young people and their families

My local library was a special place to me as a child, I’d visit every week to discover new words, pictures and prized pieces of knowledge, it was peaceful and it smelt of old books. So when Apples and Snakes began working with London libraries in 2012 I discovered a quite altered landscape for young people today – libraries have grown up too, it seems. Many now have cafés, information points for local resources, you can come just to chat to a friend, toddlers arrive to sing nursery rhymes, you can use a computer for free. Libraries are no longer just about the books they house, though books are still, and always will be, at the heart of these valued community spaces.  

As Apples and Snakes started to work more and more with libraries we recognised that today they are the backbone of local communities. We wanted to support the great work libraries already do and enable the ones whose funding is – to say the least – limited to embrace new possibilities and fulfil their creative ambitions. So we developed a new strand of work called SPINE.

In 2015 the first SPINE Festival grew out of this work. At that point we were already working with 11 different London boroughs, and together we created something unique: a spoken word and cross artform festival for children, young people and their families, in which all events and activities are free and accessible.  

Libraries make great venues – they are often on the High Street, easy to get to and navigate around, and we’ve seen that many people who would not feel comfortable in a museum, gallery or more traditional arts centre, feel welcome in their local library. With this in mind, we wanted to give families and schools access to high quality artists from different disciplines who would engage with their children and young people, brilliant theatre shows coming to the library space with no ticket required, and all sorts of eclectic creative activities to inspire young minds and to reframe libraries as the cultural hub of their local community.

‘Had no idea how much this library/space has to offer. Brilliant’ – Teacher, Whitechapel

SPINE Festival is now in its 5th year and it has continued to grow and develop alongside the ambitions of our library partners. Just this year we worked with 17 London boroughs stretching across the city from Brent in the North West to Bexley in the South East.

The theme of this year’s festival was Mental Health, with a particular focus on the wellbeing of young people. We brought onboard ten amazing Artists in Residence who worked with children and young people to explore this theme. In Peckham Library, Southwark poet Yomi Ṣode and animator Linnea Havilland decided to explore the theme through the vehicle of hands – what do our hands represent about us and what do they tell us? The collaborative art piece they created features recordings of the words participants wrote with Yomi and imagery created using everyday devices such as photocopiers and overhead projectors – how magical! Watch the animation.

This year was also the first year we commissioned a brand new spoken word theatre show as part of the festival. Since the festival’s inception Half Moon Theatre have been a key partner, providing the opportunity for libraries to programme great theatre. These shows have been incredibly popular with schools and families. To link in with the theme of Mental Health we commissioned three young poets to write a piece set at a music festival about young people’s wellbeing; Crowded toured around the SPINE Festival libraries to great acclaim.



‘It helped me understand mental health problems and who to talk
to’ – Crowded attendee

Some of the other Artists in Residence created zines. Manga artist Irina Richards worked together with poet Rue Gumbochuma in Downham Library, Lewisham. The poems the young people wrote with Rue around feelings were translated into comic book format by Irina and the resulting zine was printed and distributed in the library. Photographer Antonia Attwood and theatre-maker and writer Katie Greenall also created a zine with young people at a local special school enabling them to play with words and photography to create a wonderful publication.

Public artist Billy (a.k.a Alex Godwin) and poet Theresa Lola ran workshops in Shepherd’s Bush Library, Hammersmith and Fulham, which resulted in a stunning colourful exhibition of work exploring the word ‘happiness’. And poet Emma McGordon and visual artist Cherilyn Yeates worked together with young people in Merton at Wimbledon Library to create another fabulous exhibition of words and images inspired by the theme.

‘It was very good for mental health awareness and I liked how
everyone was respectful’ – Festival attendee

So where to now? We are already busy planning SPINE Festival 2020 which will focus on the incredibly important theme of Our Environment. Children and young people are so passionate about climate change and their desire to make sure that future generations protect the vital resources we have left. The next SPINE will give London communities the opportunity to engage with spoken word and multi-artform activities and events that enable them to creatively explore this very relevant theme. We hope to see you there!

Photo credits: Suzi Corker | Bottom left: Nicky Crabb